Palmer Elementary School

100 Palmer Lane    Newport News, VA 23602    Phone: (757) 881-5000    Fax: (757) 249-4261

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NN schools named for activists
Educators sought equal pay.

(February 28, 2011) - Some school names reflect local geography: Deer Park Elementary School and Denbigh High School, for example. Eight Newport News elementary schools bear the names of division superintendents. Others honor historical figures: scientist George Washington Carver, educator Booker T. Washington, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, and Confederate Gen. John B. Magruder.

Amid that roll call, two Newport News schools stand out. They are named for educators-turned-plaintiffs, civil-rights activists who lost their jobs in 1943 after seeking equal pay for black educators. One was a teacher; the other a principal. They were joined in their crusade by many others. But it was teacher Dorothy Roles Watkins who sued the superintendent and School Board. Lutrelle F. Palmer Sr., principal of Huntington High School, helped start the Virginia Teachers’ Association, which offered help to black teachers and schools when segregation was the norm.

Separate but equal was the prevailing standard in the early 1900s, but disparities were wide – and widely acknowledged – between black and white schools and employees in Newport News. According to a 2004 Daily Press series, "The Road to Equality," white students rode buses to school. Black students walked. Black educators earned an average $558 annually, their white counterparts $864. Newport News didn’t offer a high-school education to black students until 1919, when it devoted one classroom at John Marshall Elementary School to educate older students.

Lutrelle F. Palmer, Sr.

The room was known as Dunbar High School, to honor black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and it enrolled 52 students the first year, according to Hattie Thomas Lucas in "Huntington High School: Symbol of Community Hope and Unity." Dunbar moved to a former Warwick County school on 18th Street the following year, when it got a new principal, Palmer, and a new name, Huntington High School, to honor railroad magnate and shipyard founder Collis P. Huntington.

Palmer oversaw expansion of the four-room facility to an eight-class school in 1921, Lucas writes, but the larger school was overcrowded immediately. After much lobbying by black citizens for "a real high school," the principal also oversaw construction of a three-story school on Marshall Avenue, which opened in January 1924.

Palmer worked tirelessly on behalf of the school and its students, according to his daughter, Dorothy Palmer Smith. A 1972 Daily Press article noted his mentorship of students and community involvement. He served as chairman of the Slum Clearance Committee in 1937 and helped write a report to Newport News City Council that resulted in creation of a city housing authority. Palmer was active in a number of church and civic groups, too. But it was his advocacy for equal pay for black and white teachers that struck a nerve.

In "A Lonely Place Against the Sky," a biography of her father, Smith writes, "The Virginia State Teachers’ Association was father’s brainchild and he was its chief architect. He realized that black teachers in a segregated school system were subjected to the demoralizing consequences of low pay, overcrowded classrooms, poor or nonexistent equipment, and outdated, worn textbooks. It was father’s idea that the Association would offer professional help and support for the welfare of teachers. … It was through this organization that he directed the fight for equal pay for all teachers."

Dorothy Roles Watkins

Black teachers had petitioned the Newport News School Board for equal pay as early as 1921, according to Smith. A court case brought against Norfolk’s school system in 1939 resulted in a decision for the black plaintiffs on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, and pay parity was phased in for Norfolk teachers. The Newport News Negro Teachers’ Association took up the fight in 1940, petitioning the School Board again for equal pay, which the board opposed. Talks failed, and Dorothy Roles and the teachers’ association filed suit against the superintendent and board on Feb. 18, 1942.

Roles moved to the Peninsula in 1933 and had taught elementary school at Booker T. Washington School for nine years. Adam Fairclough, in "A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South," writes, "Black teachers in Newport News … regarded the local superintendent of schools, Joseph H. Saunders, as a progressive and fair-minded official. But when Dorothy Roles sued the School Board, Saunders reacted angrily. He threatened to demote and even dismiss black teachers if they insisted on immediate equalization."

A federal court ruled in favor of Roles and the teacher group in 1943. But, writes Fairclough, "The Newport News School Board weakened the teachers’ ability to negotiate terms by dismissing six leaders of the Newport News Negro Teachers’ Association, including Lutrelle F. Palmer, the executive secretary of the Virginia Teachers’ Association and the highly respected principal of Huntington High School. The plaintiff, Dorothy Roles, also lost her job. Palmer and Roles sued the School Board for reinstatement, but the board’s legal delaying tactics eroded the teachers’ fighting spirit." Eventually, the court sided with the board, saying it could hire and fire at will.

Palmer joined the faculty of Hampton Institute. He died in 1950, "of a broken heart," his son Lutrelle F. Palmer Jr. writes in a forward to his sister’s book. Roles went to work for Warwick County. When the county and city consolidated in 1958, she rejoined the Newport News school system, where she taught elementary school until her retirement in 1973.

Palmer Elementary School, just off Oyster Point Road, was dedicated in May 1972, the end of the first year of court-ordered busing for Newport News Public Schools. In 1974, in the days before elected school boards (Newport News first elected board members in 1994), Dorothy Roles Watkins was appointed to the School Board, on which she served until her death later that year.

The Dorothy R. Watkins Educational Center was dedicated in June 1976. Watkins’ sister, Emma Potts, told a reporter then that Roles saw the lawsuit as "just a thing that had to be done, and she did it." The facility off Bruton Avenue between Harpersville Road and J. Clyde Morris Blvd. has had varied uses over the years. Today, it is a preschool.

In addition to Palmer and Roles, five other black educators were denied reappointment in May of 1943. They were: Principal T. Roger Thompson of Booker T. Washington Elementary School, J. Rupert Picott of Dunbar Elementary School and Huntington High teachers Eric Epps, James W. Ivy, and Ethel Pannell. Dorsey C. Pleasants, School Board chairman, said, "The board saw fit not to reappoint them for the benefit of the school system." Lucas writes that collectively they had more than 80 years of education experience. Epps was a first-year teacher. Saunders Elementary School is named for Joseph H. Saunders.


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